Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Last Chance for Bahrain

by Elliott Abrams
November 24, 2011

The report this week by the international commission on Bahrain represents the royal family’s, and that nation’s, last chance. If the conclusions of the report do not lead to compromise and reform, the future holds instability, violence, and in the end the demise of al-Khalifa rule.

The existence of the report does great credit to King Hamad. When has an Arab government called for a truly honest international assessment of its handling of the most difficult moments of its rule? When has it accepted a report that accuses it of abuse of prisoners, lack of due process, and torture? The king pledged earlier this year that the commission would have a completely free hand, and he was as good as his word.

The picture drawn by the commission is grim, for as one reads the five hundred page document it becomes very clear that the problem was not misconduct by individual officers but a wide pattern of Sunni official abuse of Shia citizens. That conclusion has not been accepted by the government, but it is unavoidable when one sees the magnitude of the abuses.

It doesn’t matter, it seems to me, whether the king uses the word “pattern.” What matters now is not what he says in reaction to the report, but what he does. There are still political prisoners in Bahrain, and hundreds of Shia men and women who have lost government jobs for partisan political reasons have never been reinstated. There are still hundreds of cases of torture and denial of due process whose perpetrators have never been punished. Many times the government has promised that officials who broke the law would be punished, and I have received such promises myself from Bahraini officials: “no impunity.” The time has come to make good on those promises.

It is hard to see how any of this will happen unless the king himself carries through. The royal family is divided, with the prime minister (who is the king’s uncle) leading a hard-line faction and the crown prince a reformist group. What has been missing is another firm decision by the king: having created the commission, and allowed it to do its work freely, he must now act on its findings.

That means real reform and real movement toward constitutional monarchy. This year’s violence and abuses have in fact lost the Sunni al-Khalifa government the consent of the governed among Bahrain’s majority Shia population. Implementation of the report’s recommendations can win it back, and can form a new governing majority of Shia and Sunni who want social peace, economic progress, and a royal family that continues to modernize the country politically as well as economically. Needless to say this will require responsible action by the leading al-Wefaq party among the Shia, but signs are good that some of its key leaders would meet the king half way.

If the king is the key actor, the United States has a critical role to play. The king will be pressured by the Saudi government not to reform at all, but instead to use a firm hand against the Shia. The Saudis want no progress toward constitutional monarchy in this nation on the border of their own heavily Shia Eastern province. They have sided with the prime minister and the hard line faction, and sent troops into Bahrain to press their point. To them, this is about keeping the Shia down not about reform. And to them it is about pushing back against Iranian interference, while the report found that there has been no direct Iranian interference (beyond the use of broadcasting to try to manufacture crises).

The only counterbalance to that Saudi pressure is the United States. We have a serious interest in seeing moderate reform leading to social peace in Bahrain, in part because it is the home of the Fifth Fleet. As soon as this holiday weekend ends, the president should send a very high ranking official to Manama–someone like the Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State–to make the point that we appreciated the king’s leadership in commissioning the report and now believe that he should follow its recommendations. This should be stated publicly, while at the same time we push very hard on the Shia political groups to agree to compromise and to turn away from their own hard line factions that seek confrontation and have excessive demands.

We should organize whatever pressure we can for a compromise solution, asking the UK to weigh in with all its remaining influence in Bahrain, which is considerable, asking Shia leaders from Iraq to counsel their cousins to compromise, and seeking whatever moderate counsel from Arab leaders to the king we can round up. We should counsel the Bahraini Shia leaders to push back against their own extremists, and do whatever we can to show respect for the moderate leaders and help build a Shia majority for compromise.

This is probably Bahrain’s last chance so it is worth a strenuous effort on our part. The international commission’s report can be a turning point toward continuing internal reforms and social peace, or a lost opportunity to save Bahrain from turmoil. Let’s hope King Hamad realizes the future of his dynasty depends on the decisions he makes in the coming months.

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by Samar

    Dear Mr. Abrahams,

    Thanks for your candid instructions.

    Please note that the people overwhelmingly dimiss them. Both governments US and Britian should reconsider their attitudes towards Alkhalifa regime. It has been confirmed that 80 percent have categorically dismiss them and those governments should bear in mind.

    The people of Bahrain in particular shiite have been deprived of their rights for two hundred years. The people have vowed to remove for ever.

    I wish both governments should take this note should they need to protect their interests in the region.

    Please US and British do not try to support them, though the people will not keep quite under their downfall. Please cooperate with the poor people. I appeal to you in the of Jesus and God stand up with people of Bahrain.

    Please convey this message to both governments.

    Bahraini (independent) URGENT Message

  • Posted by Abdulla


    I wish your article was more balanced in analyzing the findings of this report. The report which accused the ruling family of abuse is full with accusation to the so called opposition. Numerous examples of attacks on civilians and expats.
    In Bahrain, there is actually an absence of enforcement of law which lead to all of this chaos. If Bahraini government was brave enough to act like NYPD did in Wall Street, things would have been much better.
    All I am asking for is to look at the report in a more balanced way


  • Posted by Hesham

    As a respected writer I wish to ask on your sources for the claim that Shiites are the majority in Bahrain. I hope you will not quote the Farmer’s Almanac on this statistic. The last census in Bahrain done on sectarian basis was in the 1940s. Furthermore, real reform comes with a full implementation of the rule of law. The same poor peaceful protesters have killed policemen, Sunnis, as well as expatriates as was documented in the findings of the report.

    Bahrain had started reforms in 2000 amidst a sea (or should I say a Gulf) of monarchies and theocratic states surrounding it. The same Shiite opposition opened lots of tabu topics like mishandeling of land and other sensative areas and cooperated with Sunni political parties to bring constitutional changes. This was mentioned in their platform in the free elections in 2010.

    The latest unrest was unfounded on any credible national basis. It was a clear attempt by Iran and Hezbollah to extend their reach and sphere of power. It’s quite naive to call for democratic reform when the opposition are basically trying to create a theocratic regime (an Islamic republic called for by Hasan Mushaimea in his speech during the protests).

    Finally, I hope the calls for reform from the furthest point in the globe to us (i.e. the United States) are not as fruitful as those attempting to bring democracy to Iraq. We’ve all seen the wonderful results there.

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    This is Elliott Abrams. I wish to thank all those who have commented. In response to Abdul, who is correct in saying the last census was in the 1940s (1941, actually), I would cite page 11 of the new BICI international commission report. There it is estimated that the population may be 60-70 percent Shia.

  • Posted by Ahmed from Bahrain

    Dear Mr. Abrams,

    Thank you for your opinion about reconcilliation. I am 7th generation Bahraini Shiite although many in my own family are married to Sunnis both male and female.

    There is nothing dear to my heart than to see us live in peace side by side like the good old days. Sadly when I reflect on turn of events, I see killing of civilians, torture, removal of men/women in the dead of the night, intimidation and abuse by foreign nationals wearing offical uniform and thus representing the King, etc. etc. How are we to extend a hand of friendship to such a regime? It is hard once blood of the innocence is spelt to ignore justice and expect the victim to keep qiet without retribution.

    The other axe that I have to grind is the fact that over the last 50 years most recruits in the police, security, army are of foreign Sunni personnel, mostly from Pakistan, Baluchistan, Jordan, Yemen and even Bathies ex Iraq. They are all given jobs, free education for their children, free housing and citizenship yet many are born on the island and have no citizinship or such rights. This is purely to subjugate the Shiites and tilt the demography of this tiny nation.

    How are we to feel knowing that our country is run by thugs and foreign mercenaries.

    I would like you to put yourself in our position: How would you feel if the US army, police and intelligence were mostly from say China and did not speak your language or accent and they were not born in the US but held US citizenship, had secure jobs and free housing and education for their children. To add insult to injury, they were given full authority to abuse you at their own volition and you had no right of comp-laint and even if you did, no one would listen and assuredly you would face more abuse.

    Trust me, I can go on but I trust you already know of our affairs. Still, if it were up to me, I would sack Sheikh Khalifah and put Sheikh Salman, the king’s son to lead this dialaogue since he is young and is open to reforms. There is no other way and I pray that soon the ruling family can cede to the demands of the nation and make every effort to bring the people together. The alternative is more bloodshed.

    One last thing, all those mercenaries should be sent back to where they came from and their jobs be given to the indigenous people of the island. This could be a hard one for the king to swallow but at such times hard remedies are needed if the pain of allienation is to subside.

    Yours truly
    Ahmed Ali Al’Hashim.

  • Posted by Ebrahima

    It’s good the writer cited the source of the population estimate which is the BICI. What BICI did not state is the naturalization process the government of Bahrain is systematically carrying out since the year 2000 in addition to the police forces, army soldiers and other security departments that employs naturalized & un-naturlized Asians (including Sunnis from Pakistan, Syria, Jordan …)the fact which makes the situation highly tensed and lacking the trust between people and the government. People feels this is a strategic threat on Bahraini social security, political equation, culture and economy. Below is an example of adverts in Pakistan to hire policemen to repress protest in Bahrain.

  • Posted by Ebrahima

    It’s good the writer cited the source of the population estimate which is the BICI. What BICI did not state is the naturalization process the government of Bahrain is systematically carrying out since the year 2000 in addition to the police forces, army soldiers and other security departments that employs naturalized & un-naturlized Asians (including Sunnis from Pakistan, Syria, Jordan …)the fact which makes the situation highly tensed and lacking the trust between people and the government. People feels this is a strategic threat on Bahraini social security, political equation, culture and economy. Below is an example of adverts in Pakistan to hire policemen to repress protest in Bahrain.

  • Posted by Hassan from UAE

    I saw the last part of the article as the most important part. As Abdullah in his comment tells, it is a version of tactices used by NYPD.
    Mr. Abrams main point is not making pressure on the king Hamad to compromise, but making severe pressure on the Shai group, Al-wafagh, even using UK influnece inside Bahrain or in Iraq to make Shia to compromise. Discussing about moderate groups in Shia, is an effort to make division among opposition, a ploy like what did NYPD! again.
    So I dont recommend taking Mr. Abrams by his words – the first part, one should take neo-cons by their deeds.
    This article is not a threat toward both – king and opposition, but compromise the power to the hand of King Hamad, and ask him only some position in the government, while it ask for all sort of pressure on the oposition. This is an abuse of the 500 page international report and misguiding people.

  • Posted by harrison d'ente

    the independant commission gave hundreds of pages about what has happened in Bahrain., but i have yet to see the king and his uncle tried for all the deaths, bloodshed and misery that they have caused the peaceful protestors..instead the pakistani soldiers are still driving around “looking” for people… today is the first day no one heard tear gas shots oh! and because it is raining!!!!! such shame for this beautiful island that once was enjoyed by all..now people are fast leaving huh!

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